With the Right to Education Bill being passed by the Parliament, education now becomes a fundamental right. But what about the needs of those who have dropped out of the school system?

Starting with our Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, everyone in the government and those engaged with education acknowledge that an overwhelming majority of our young people (14-20 years) are not attending any educational institution — schools, te chnical training institutions, colleges, universities etc.

What does our education system (formal, not-so-formal, private) provide? Schools, industrial/vocational training institutions and colleges/universities (professional and general). Look around and it becomes more than obvious that there are really no educational opportunities for those who have either dropped out, or have been pushed out of the system.

Disadvantaged communities

Who are these young people? Again, there is little disagreement over the fact that an overwhelming majority of these young people are from poor and disadvantaged communities, living in villages, tribal hamlets, desert, hilly and remote habitations in rural areas. In the cities and in peri-urban areas — these young people are most likely to be new or seasonal migrants in search of work. There is considerable body of evidence that reveals that children of families displaced by natural and man-made disasters, children of people affected with social strife and conflict and children of single/widowed women and those who have lost their parents to a disease (including HIV and AIDS) constitute the bulk of drop outs. Within each of the above groups that girls are more likely to be in a majority.

What are these millions of young people doing? A large proportion of girls are married; those who are not are engaged in some kind of work. Boys are engaged in some kind of work; if they find it in these troubled times. Most often these young people have little to do. They are under-employed or unemployed and given the quality of education they did receive, the chances are that they do not have the knowledge, skills or confidence to seek new avenues for employment or self-employment.

Let us delve into the world of education and training. If we look at the expenditure pattern of the government and also the not-so-insignificant donor community, it is fairly apparent that a significant proportion of resources continue to be invested in schooling, somewhat less on higher education (the bulk of new expenditure in higher education comes from the private sector) and the remainder on vocational and technical education. There is little quarrel with the need to invest in the above sectors. Nevertheless given the stiff competition for resources and the multiple pulls and pressures the educational needs of out-of-school young people — those who have dropped out of the system — does not attract the needed attention of the official machinery.

Here is a space that has been left wide open. If we look carefully, the total contribution of the donor community — private foundations, international NGOs — in the formal space is miniscule when compared to total expenditure. Though in quantitative terms it may add up to a lot. As of the present private and corporate foundations, INGOS and public charities continue to aspire to work in the same space as the government. Many of them try to energise, improve or fine-tune the government system. They devise projects and programmes in collaboration with NGOs to make the government system work better or make it more accountable. And while some of it no doubt yields good results, there is little conclusive proof of significant impact.

Given that there are millions of school drop outs and school push outs in the country, is it not time that those who wish to make an impact turn their attention from trying to cajole and push government to exploring avenues to create meaningful educational opportunities for the young people out of school in rural and urban areas who are desperately seeking opportunities to learn and to grow?

Design intervention

Earlier in 2001 and 2006, the Government of India (Planning Commission) set up two working groups to look into the situation of adolescents. These reports acknowledged that the educational needs of adolescents and young people (especially the drop outs) had been largely ignored by the mainstream education system. More disturbing — with the exception of a few pioneers in different parts of the country — even the alternative sector has turned a blind eye to them. The large donor and international/national development community too continues to focus on fixing the system. Without for a moment arguing that the existing schooling system is perfect or that it does not need fixing, it is undeniable that millions of young girls and boys continue to drop out and have little opportunity to grow into self-confident, skilled, aware and articulate adults. With the school system essentially geared to the urban middle-class and formal employment market (a baggage that we have consciously chosen to carry from colonial times), the educational needs of drop outs and out-of-school children continues to be ignored. True, a few have tried to design interventions under the aegis of population and health (read HIV) programmes, but they primarily address fertility, sexual behaviour and planned parenthood aspects of adolescent education. The situation on the ground is such that the real-life education needs of young people are not being addressed.

Programmes, residential or non-residential, could include a couple of hours of basic education involving language, math, science, civics, society etc followed by an intensive theoretical as well as hands-on/practical training in a skill or vocation. Intensive two-year programmes could be followed by apprenticeship and where necessary linked to a bank from where they can take a loan to start their own unit and/or purchase implements they may require for their vocation. Based on periodic survey of emerging opportunities for employment/self-employment in a given area (say Block or District) — such programmes can provide young people a place where they can continue their education.

Such programmes need lead to formal high-school certificate, but some kind of a diploma. If designed creatively in a modular fashion, such programmes could enable young school drop outs multiple entry points (in the event of them dropping out) and also multiple exit points whereby those motivated enough to pursue formal schooling can be linked up to open schools.

Positive spiral

Why is this kind of opportunity important in today’s world? It is widely acknowledged that the presence of a group of demoralised/disillusioned youngsters, who may have either completed schooling or have dropped out, who have little scope for employment/self-employment that yields a decent income, acts as a strong disincentive for education of other children in the family and community. Younger children see the writing on the wall — education does not significantly alter the life situation of the poor and the marginalised in our society. It does not lead to any material gain, or for that matter even unquantifiable value addition (social capital). Increasing adolescent crime, violence and general social unrest among the literate youth (or educated youth if you like) further reinforces negative attitudes towards the youth and towards education (especially if the cohort has completed primary schooling).

As a result the very absence of opportunities for education that is meaningful leads to greater disaffection among the youth.

Conversely, the presence of meaningful educational opportunities results in a positive spiral — and this acts as a propelling force, encouraging the community to invest in the education of their children. This may also lead to greater public interest and engagement with our education system — making it more accountable to the children.

Here is a wide open space, one where the government is not doing much today. We have several big corporate foundations, international NGOs and international foundations and a growing community of people genuinely interested in making a difference.

Can this community not think out of the box and reach out to millions of young girls and boys who are waiting for an opportunity to break free from the vicious cycle of poverty and hopelessness? Does this not make economic sense in a country that seeks to leverage its demographic dividend?

The writer is an education consultant based in Delhi.

The numbers

50.5 per cent boys (55.2 SC and 65 ST) and 51.2 per cent girls (60 per cent SC and 67.1 per cent ST) drop out before they complete elementary school (class 1-8).

If we are to take the percentage of those who drop out before completing class 10, the percentage shoots up to 61 per cent for boys (69.1 SC and 74.2 ST) and 64 per cent for girls (77.8 SC and 80.7 ST).

What is “real life” education?

Basic language, math, science and civics that gives them confidence to negotiate the world they live in. Confidence and skills to reach out the information and knowledge to make informed decisions. Skill training (linked to emerging economic opportunities in rural and urban, farm and non-farm), and most important, ability to critically reflect on their life and their situation and chart a path for themselves with their peers.